I have two questions regarding the implications of releasing something open-source and it later being used by "bad people" (terrorists, authoritarian regimes, and so on). The first is about the legal consequences and the second is about what free software advocates say about this (I googled but couldn’t find anything).

For illustration, let’s say I release as "open hardware" the code to make a gun with a 3D printer.

  1. Am I legally liable if a terrorist 3D prints the gun and hurts somebody?
  2. What is free software advocates' take on the issue of use of open source software for nefarious objectives? Is it the price to pay for freedom?
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    The first question is off-topic (try Law for general legal questions), the second is just asking for opinions, which we don't do here. Jun 14, 2020 at 3:49
  • Open source is used by both US DoE and CEA and both organizations are making nuclear weapons. Open source is used in Iran, which IMHO could be described as an authoritarian regime. Open source compilers or OSes are also used by German (or French) defense industry Jun 25, 2020 at 15:49
  • Related answer: opensource.stackexchange.com/a/10039/910 Jun 25, 2020 at 15:53
  • And most super computers on top500.org are running Linux, and generally used for things you might not be happy about (weapons, oil industry, ....) Jun 25, 2020 at 15:56

2 Answers 2


Yes, unethical use of open source assets is an ethical problem. However:

  • Licenses that say “don't do illegal stuff” won't stop criminals from doing illegal stuff.
  • Unwanted behaviour is really hard to define, to the point that the definitions might be too vague to be enforceable.
  • Excluding specific groups is a very blunt instrument. E.g. allowing everyone except the government of a certain country to use some software would continue punishing that country after the government has changed.
  • Hopefully, the good that comes from Open Source outweighs the bad uses.

The Free Software Definition and the Open Source Definition both emphasize that the software must be free to use for all purposes, without excluding anyone. However, all licenses do express the values of their drafters. For example the GPL expresses the belief that software freedom is ethically mandated, and the Cryptographic Autonomy License expresses the belief that end users should have control of their data in SaaS scenarios.

In contrast, the Ethical Source folks suggest licenses that directly exclude purposes or groups for ethical arguments, despite the problems mentioned above.

I believe that licensing is the wrong layer to address ethical issues in the open source community. It is unreasonable to believe that we can create software in a manner that only benefits the right people. However, we can run projects in an ethical fashion. Ethical artefacts vs ethical processes and communities.

It is also worth considering whether a certain software is even worth creating: a sysadmin tool like Chef is going to have way more neutral than bad uses, whereas the societal consequences for working on facial recognition or deep fakes are much darker on average.

Whether a developer is legally liable for the uses of the stuff they publish depends on what they are publishing, and what the applicable laws are. In general, it is impossible to disclaim all liability. For example, building an application that's purpose-built to commit copyright infringement is clearly contributing to that infringement. Publishing malware treads a very fine line between giving tools to red teams to improve security on one hand, and providing cyber-munitions to terrorists on the other. Your 3D printed gun example is close to the Liberator from Defense Distributed. While one open source advocate (ESR) has lauded this gun, it may be worth pointing out that his views have diverged from the FOSS mainstream.

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    Contra, and exactly mirroring the Defense Distributed position: Deepfake software will exist, and so the question is not "have or do not have", it's "a handful of government intelligence agencies have a monopoly on it" or "democratized with the attendant inoculation against believing what you see". Jun 14, 2020 at 3:50

So you know that Free and Open Source Software can not limit use, and that trying to do so would be useless and problematic. So I will discuss the other part.

Your liability: First this is a legal thing. Consult lawyers in your jurisdiction. All I will say is it may depend on what you supply. For example you mention a gun. In the UK it is illegal to supply guns, so you would probably be liable. A chefs knife is illegal to supply to any one under 18 years old. Where as a doughnut (though these have killed far more people than the other two combined), is perfectly legal (but check out food hygiene and labelling laws). Generally if a software has a good purpose and is used for bad you should be ok. However this is not always the case. In the UK the government tried to pass a law with a clause that any software that could be used for breaking into a software system would be illegal (this would have make all software illegal, and after much lobbying was removed). So the short answer is, it depends, on what you write and where you are, and where you go.

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